Saturday, May 18, 2024

SIFF Dispatch #5: Two Marriages in Trouble in Banel & Adama and July Rhapsody

BANEL & ADAMA 
(Ramata-Toulaye Sy, 2023, Mali/Senegal/France, 87 mins) 

First-time French-Senegalese filmmaker Ramata-Toulaye Sy's supernatural-tinged love story, a Palme d'Or nominee at Cannes, is attuned to the beauty--and cruelty--of land, sky, and water. People, however, represent the greatest threat to a couple's happiness.

Though her husband, Adama (Mamadou Diallo), grew up believing the fables his elders taught him, Banel (Khady Mane, a promising newcomer like Diallo) is more skeptical. Compared to the rest of the tribe, the childhood sweethearts are free thinkers--to the disappointment of Adama's traditionalist mother. And though the marriage was arranged (after Banel's first husband died), the couple would prefer to live on their own outside the village. If Banel could simply help Adama to herd the cattle with the other men, rather than to work the land and wash the clothes like the other women, she would be happy. Her needs are simple and not unreasonable. 

When drought overtakes the region, leading to the deaths of both elders and cattle, their independence becomes an affront. Worse yet, villagers believe it's the cause of their current difficulties. If Adama would agree to take over as chief, as preordained, and if Banel would provide him with an heir, all would be well, except he doesn't want the job and she doesn't want children.

The lack of any modern conveniences lends Banel & Adama a timeless quality. Not only could the film be set in most any era, but Banel is a feminist in a time and place in which people view her love for--rather than dependence on--her husband with suspicion, leading to increasingly erratic and downright cruel, self-sabotaging behavior the more they criticize and ostracize her, though she will eventually, possibly too late, take decisive action. 

If it differs in look and feel, Banel & Adama offers the same empathetic approach to independent-minded women that characterized the work of Senegalese master Ousmane Sembène (Black Girl, Faat Kiné). It's a haunting film about being born too soon to live the life you deserve.  

Banel & Adama plays Sat, May 18, at 9pm and Sun, May 19, at 11am at Pacific Place. For more information, click here.

JULY RHAPSODY  / Lam Yan Sei Saap / 男人四十
(Ann Hui, 2002, Hong Kong, 103 minutes) 




Wu (Karena Lam): "You're just a piece of antique after all!"
Lam (Jacky Cheung): "I've been a stiff all my life."
Wu: "Stiffs attract people to try and bend them."

Forty-year-old Lam (Cantopop star Jacky Cheung with a touch of grey at the temples) has a decent life in Hong Kong in Ann Hui's sensitively-rendered tale of midlife crisis. He has a full-time job teaching Chinese literature, a "model wife of 20 years" in Ching (Rouge's Anita Mui, who passed away in 2003, only one year after this film's release), and two teenaged sons. 

He isn't poor, but his school friends have gotten a lot richer from the stock market, and it makes him uncomfortable. Wu (Karena Lam), a pretty secondary school student, also makes him uncomfortable, because she has a certain seductive quality--she also reminds him of his wife as a teenager. 

When Ching takes time off to look after a pre-Lam ex-lover with terminal cancer--her future husband's tutor in their youth--Lam starts to spend time with Wu after school hours. It isn't sexual, or maybe it is (Hui leaves this part ambiguous), but it's definitely inappropriate. Class also plays a part since Lam has always tried to be the best in everything he does, while Wu initially lacks ambition, despite her evident talent as an essayist, possibly because she knows she'll always find a soft place to land no matter what she does or doesn't do. As she states near the end, "I always get what I want." 

In his review at The Chinese Cinema, Seattle Film Critics Society colleague Sean Gilman referenced the Police's 1980 hit "Don't Stand So Close to Me," not necessarily facetiously, and he isn't off-base. Lam can't think straight whenever Wu enters his vicinity. Hui doesn't sexualize the actress, but focuses on her eyes, her hands, or the back of her head (the film was shot by Pung-Leung Kwan); that's all it takes to destabilize Lam's equilibrium. And that's what he sees in his mind's eye whenever she's not around. 

At her (or its) worst, Wu is a construct, but she isn't Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan

I was a sophomore in high school when I first saw that acclaimed--at the time--Woody Allen film, and I could tell that Hemingway's Tracy was more of a middle-aged man's fantasy than an actual human being, though her charismatic performance sure fooled a lot of people. I guess it helps Hui's film that Lam and Wu don't have these sorts of conversations: Isaac (Allen), "Hey, how many times a night can you, how, how often can you make love in an evening?" Tracy, "Well, a lot." Eww. 

By the end of July Rhapsody, Lam realizes he's "essential," despite all his dissatisfactions. He genuinely cares about his family, and he loves his job. The screenplay is from Ivy Ho, who wrote Peter Chan's Comrades, An Almost Love Story with Maggie Cheung and Leon Lai, one of cinema's more affecting love stories--in that case, historical events serve as more of an impediment to a lasting relationship than repressed memories or unresolved feelings. The actors here live up to that high standard, Jacky Cheung (As Tears Go By) above all. Though I haven't seen every film Ann Hui has made, every one I've seen is a winner, and July Rhapsody is no exception.


July Rhapsody
plays on Sat, May 18, at 11:30am at SIFF Downtown. Though there's only one  SIFF screening, it opens in the US on June 7. For more information, click here. Images from Film Forum (Khady Mane), The Guardian (Mane and Mamadou Diallo), The Film Stage (Jacky Cheung and Karena Lam), Mubi (Cheung with Anita Mui), and Cheng Cheng Films.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

I Saw the Best Minds of My Generation Destroyed by Nick at Nite and the WB: On Jane Schoenbrun’s '90s-Damaged I Saw the TV Glow

I SAW THE TV GLOW 
(Jane Schoenbrun, USA, 2024, 100 minutes) 

Maddy: Do you like girls? 
Owen: I don't know. 
Maddy: Boys? 
Owen: I- I- I think that, I like TV shows.

In Jane Schoenbrun's 2021 narrative debut, We're All Going to the World's Fair, which was set in the present day, a young woman (Anna Cobb) finds community, connection, and a sense of self through the internet. 

In their more ambitious follow-up, I Saw the TV Glow, set primarily in the 1990s, a young man finds something similar through television, specifically a Saturday night TV show called The Pink Opaque, a title Schoenbrun swiped from a 1986 compilation album from ethereal Scots trio the Cocteau Twins (the filmmaker self-released their first feature, A Self-Induced Hallucination, a found footage documentary about the Slenderman, in 2018). 

They're as different, and as similar, as two films can be. One character is a white woman, and the other is a Black man, though Owen (played by Ian Foreman as a kid and The Get Down's Justice Smith as an adult) finds Pink Opaque fandom through Maddy (Atypical's Brigette Lundy-Paine), a white woman who is older, cooler, more self-possessed, and also more troubled. Owen is initially too young and too naïve to find the world quite so troubling, but he craves connection, and doesn't appear to have any friends. 

Schoenbrun's screenplay never suggests that race is an issue, but it's possible that Owen's biracial identity, combined with his asthma–and later, gender dysphoria–has contributed to his feelings of isolation in a vanilla New Jersey suburb like the one of Schoenbrun's youth. Though his mother (Danielle Deadwyler, an Oscar nominee for 2022's Till) is supportive, her health is in rapid decline, while his bullet-headed father is a judgmental disciplinarian (in a provocative bit of casting, Limp Bizkit front man Fred Durst, a man once notorious for his homophobic slurs, plays his father).

Owen spots Maddy at school, during an after-hours Election Day event, while engrossed in an episode guide to The Pink Opaque

He's aware of the show, which airs on the Young Adult Network, but it's on after his bedtime, so he's never seen it, though the promotional spots featuring Isabel (Helena Howard, a standout in Josephine Decker's excellent Madeline's Madeline) and Tara (Snail Mail singer and first-time actress Lindsey Jordan) have captured his imagination. It's a TV show, not real life, but that's no deterrent as it offers the promise of something better: a world in which two attractive teenagers, one Black and one white, vanquish a new monster each week. 

Owen and Maddy don't become friends exactly, but she helps him find a way to see the show, and he becomes equally hooked. Just as Alexander Payne shot The Holdovers, which is set in 1971, to look like a film from that era, Schoenbrun has done something similar with I Saw the TV Glow by shooting in 35mm, contributing to the hazy, slightly surrealistic effect. 

There's a difference, though, in that Payne didn't actually shoot in 35mm, but worked with a DP and colorist who manipulated the digital imagery to make it appear as if he did, whereas Schoenbrun even employed VHS and Betamax transfers to age and distort the excerpts from The Pink Opaque

When Maddy disappears from his life without a trace--only to return years later in a different guise--Owen is left on his own to figure things out. In real life, he doesn't have a Tara by his side to help him battle the monsters of everyday existence, and as he grows into adulthood, he comes to realize that nostalgia has colored his memories of The Pink Opaque. What seemed so profound when he was young now seems kind of silly.

But Schoenbrun isn’t necessarily saying that nostalgia is silly. If anything, their film is steeped in nostalgia, specifically their nostalgia for the 1990s, a decade in which Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered first as a minor motion picture and then as a treasured TV show on the upstart WB network with a rich mythology featuring high school girls and boys (some gay), monsters (not all unfriendly), and caring mentors, like Anthony Head's Giles–would that we all had a Giles in our lives when we needed one most.

Schoenbrun ups the ante with a melancholy soundtrack featuring contemporary artists, including Caroline Polachek and Pheobe Bridgers, performing 16 songs on screen that incorporate musical and thematic references to the 1990s. Though they have cited the music sequences in Buffy and Beverly Hills 90210 as influences, I was reminded more of the roadhouse performances that ended each episode of Twin Peaks: The Return. Look sharp, and you'll also spot cast members from Buffy and Nickelodeon's The Adventures of Pete & Pete, which featured musicians Syd Straw, Michael Stipe, and Iggy Pop--as a cardigan-clad suburban dad. 

For a trans narrative, I Saw the TV Glow is the opposite of didactic or heavy-handed, though Schoenbrun, in the Q&A after the SIFF screening, made it crystal clear that that's exactly what it is--a trans narrative--and the same was true of their first feature; it's just that they were at different points along their trans journey while making each one. 
 
Nonetheless, there is no "aha moment" when Owen realizes he is trans. Not to give too much away, but the tragedy is that he never really does. Or to put it another way, he does have the so-called egg-crack moment, but he doesn't quite know how to interpret or act on the realization. It just freaks him out.

The lack of closure to The Pink Opaque, which ended on a claustrophobic cliffhanger, and, more significantly, the lack of Owen's own happy ending has led many observers to describe I Saw the TV Glow as a horror film–and not just because of the mall-goth, Hot Topic-on-psylicibon vibe–though there is no "big bad" outside of the TV show. His father comes close, I suppose, but in the end the scariest monster of all isn't a vampire or a werewolf, but rather Owen's seemingly immutable inability to embrace his true self.

For all its lovingly-crafted aesthetic qualities, I found this a deeply sad film.


For a more personal take on the film, Seattle Film Critics Society member Sara Michelle Fetters (MovieFreak, Seattle Gay News) has a great one here.

I Saw the TV Glow opens in Seattle at Pacific Place, Thornton Place, and other AMC/Regal theaters on Thurs, May 16, and at the Uptown on Fri, May 24. Images from the IMDb (Justice Smith), A24 via Movie Insider (Lindsey Jordan and Helena Howard), Decider (Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine), and my cell phone (Jane Schoenbrun at the Egyptian on May 10, 2024).

Monday, May 13, 2024

SIFF 2024 Dispatch #4: Staring at Computer Screens in Red Rooms and Sebastian

RED ROOMS / Les Chambres Rouges 
(Pascal Plante, Canada, 2023, 118 minutes) 

In recent years, true crime has expanded from non-fiction books to podcasts, streaming series, and national conventions. For some, it's an interest; for others, it's an all-consuming passion. The latter describes Kelly-Anne (the remarkable Juliette Gariépy), a tech-savvy Quebec model obsessed with Ludovic Chevalier (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos), who stands accused of murdering and dismembering three teenage girls--and streaming it all live. 
 
Kelly-Anne, who attends his trial daily, forms an odd friendship with a Chevalier super-fan (Laurie Babin) before breaking away to track down a crucial piece of evidence. Free from violence or gore, the chilly veneer recalls Klute, bolstered by a visual approach that suggests non-stop surveillance, and offers, most memorably, a deeply twisted protagonist. 

Red Rooms plays Majestic Bay on Tues, May 14, at 8:30pm and SIFF Downtown on Wed, May 15, at 9:30pm. For more information, click here.

SEBASTIAN 
(Mikko Mäkelä, UK/Finland/Belgium, 2024, 110 minutes) 

A toxic stew of ambition and insecurity twists a young man in knots in Sebastian

Max (Scottish-Italian actor Ruaridh Mollica), a London writer, feels he can only really explore sex work as a topic if he plunges into it, so he has been operating under the name Sebastian and building a novel around his encounters. Though only 25, he feels like a failure because he hasn't published a book yet. When his literary agent encourages him to make the novel less repetitive, he ramps up his nocturnal activities at the expense of his freelance work, his social life, and possibly even his sanity. 

Though Mollica is very good, Finnish-born filmmaker Mikko Mäkelä humanizes Max's mostly older clientele in a way that sometimes makes them more sympathetic, especially Jonathan Hyde as an erudite widower. 
 

 
Sebastian plays the Uptown on Sat, May 18, at 11:30am. For more information, click here. Images from Deadline (Juliette Gariépy) and James Watson/the IMDb (Ruaridh Mollica with David Nellist as a client).

Saturday, May 11, 2024

SIFF 2024 Dispatch #3: Battling Bugs and More in Daniel McCabe's Grasshopper Republic

GRASSHOPPER 
REPUBLIC 
(Daniel McCabe, USA, 2023, 94 minutes) 

"Grasshoppers should not make us go crazy." 

This Is Congo filmmaker Daniel McCabe begins his patient, observant documentary, an extension of Michele Sibiloni's 2021 photo book Nsenene, with magnified images of grasshoppers, or "bush crickets," being born. They start out as glossy oblong tubes before poking out their heads and unfolding their impossibly slender limbs. There's nothing quite like them. Many bugs give me the heebie jeebies, but grasshoppers aren't half as creepy as spiders. 

From the birth scene, McCabe shifts to remote, hilly Bundibugyo in Kampala where workers are toiling away on some unidentified project. Twenty minutes into the film the foreman reveals that he'll be using the equipment his men have been moving and setting up, including a rickety generator, to capture grasshoppers. McCabe spent three years capturing the capture.

It isn't just difficult work, it's dangerous, disruptive, and time-sensitive, since grasshopper mating season only lasts for a month or two. The equipment, which involves incandescent lights with the glass bulbs removed--treated so that they emanate an eerie green glow at night--can destroy crops and cause permanent skin and vision damage, but it pays more than most other jobs in the area, even those in the healthcare field. In other words, the men stand to make more in three months than the pharmacists who dole out the pills and ointments needed to treat their ailments. 

During the film, trappers quarrel with land owners who would prefer that they just go away, but instead they negotiate for the highest fees they can possibly get. It isn't greed; the capture process is so invasive, it can ruin crops for generations, especially when it comes to maize, a Ugandan staple. The trappers also quarrel among themselves. "You look like a cow's anus!," one young man quips to another while struggling with the heavy generator. 

Once the grasshoppers start to arrive, they come in Coke-bottle-green droves, flapping and fluttering against the cassava-coated corrugated iron chutes designed to trap them. It's as much a percussive phenomenon as a visual one. Once caught, trappers bring them to town to sell the bushels of bugs on the streets or at market stalls. I couldn't say what happens to them after that, other than they're intended for human consumption. For what it's worth, my dad ate a fried grasshopper while stationed in Asia in the early-1960s, while in the Air Force--probably during a stop in Thailand--and was not impressed. He wasn't grossed-out, necessarily, but to paraphrase David Foster Wallace, it was "a supposedly fun thing he would never do again."

I haven't mentioned any of the workers by name, because McCabe doesn't identify them, putting them on the same plane as the grasshoppers, which may have been the point. Vivid cinematography from McCabe, Michael McCabe, and Michele Sibiloni--including close-up imagery of beetles, caterpillars, and the 35 other creatures listed in the credits--combined with Candyman composer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe's alternatively playful and meditative electronic score add to the appeal of a documentary that revolves as much around human versus human as human versus insect. 



Grasshopper Republic plays Mon, May 13, at 12:30pm at SIFF Downtown and on Wed, May 15, at 9:15pm at Pacific Place. Click here for more information. Images from Cleveland International Film Festival and Doc NYC.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

SIFF 2024 Dispatch #2: The Primevals and Tony, Shelly, and the Magic Light

THE PRIMEVALS 
(David Allen, USA, 2023, 90 minutes) 

Because David Allen's The Primevals wasn't completed until last year--24 years after his death--it's classified as a new film. It definitely does not look like one. Though principal photography dates back to 1994, the animation work began in 1978, and the stop-motion effects are no more sophisticated than those of the Rankin/Bass productions of yore (Allen is best known for his effects work on Joe Dante's The Howling and Ron Howard's Willow). If anything, the yeti recalls the great ape in Merian C. Cooper's original 1933 King Kong--the same film that encouraged Allen to go into filmmaking.

After scientists acquire the body of the yeti, who was buried in an avalanche, they set out, along with an impetuous Sherpa and macho tracker Rondo Montana, to find out why this specimen lived such a violent life. Except for Juliet Mills, who brings her well-trained professionalism to the role of the senior scientist, the acting is middling at best, and things never get as wild and wiggy as in 1981's similarly-constructed Clash of the Titans, which featured the final work of animation legend Ray Harryhausen. That said, the lizard-like aliens are fun in a demented Sid and Marty Krofft kind of way. 

Though it's always nice to see that stop-motion hasn't been completely abandoned as an animation technique, and though it's heartening that Allen's associates and crowd-funding fans saw the film to completion, The Primevals plays more like a basic cable movie than a full-fledged motion picture. On the plus side, it's suitable for the whole adventure-loving family, and it's sure to provide more entertainment value in a grand old theater during a film festival than on a computer screen in my apartment. 

   

The Primevals plays the Egyptian on Fri, May 10, at 11:59pm and on Tues, May 14, at 9:30pm. Click here for more information. 

TONY, SHELLY, AND THE MAGIC LIGHT 
Tonda, Slávka a Kouzelné Světl 
(Filip Pošivač, Czech-Slovak-Hungarian, 2023, 82 minutes) 

I'm the man with the light bulb head 
I turn myself on in the dark 
I'm the man with the light bulb head 
I turn myself on for a lark. 

--Robyn Hitchcock (1985) 

Unlike The Primevals, this Eastern European production dispenses with pesky humans--who needs 'em--for an all-stop-motion affair. The story center on 11-year-old Tony, who frequently wears a mask, because he doesn't look like other kids. His parents have also attached him to a tether, much like a dog on a leash, so he isn't able to wander far from their apartment. 

When the outspoken, bespectacled Shelly and her gloomy mother Sylvia, a retired actress, move in to their building, Tony finds himself enchanted by Shelly's magic flashlight, which brings her fantastical imaginings--from jungles to dinosaurs--to colorful life. The thing is: only he can see them. 

After bratty neighbor Ernestine inadvertently unmasks Tony, Shelly finds herself equally enchanted by his glowing head. In fact, he's thoroughly incandescent. When he rescues her pet bird Fanny, she dubs him "Glowing Super-Tony." Though it's great to have a friend--possibly his very first--Tony remains firmly attached to the tether, and even when he's around, his overprotective parents spend more time doting on their non-glowing toddler twins. Tony just wants to be free, like Ernestine, Shelly and Fanny. 

In addition to their parents, the duo's other antagonists include Ernestine's purple-clad mother, Miss Tubby, and the building's evil spirit, a big, black, caterpillar-like creature made up of tiny fuzzballs. When the neighbors argue, a common occurrence, the fuzzballs materialize and multiply like Tribbles before forming one all-consuming blob. Only the aging and creaky caretaker is able to keep it under control.

Though Tony, Shelly, and the Magic Light includes plenty of unique details, the ending may remind older viewers of Harry Nilsson's animated film The Point!--this is not a bad thing--and though extremely kid-friendly, it features English subtitles rather than dubbing, so parents should be advised. Fortunately, the animation is intricate and imaginative enough to keep most pre-readers engaged, and even if it isn't targeted at my age group, I find it hard to resist sympathetic stories about neglected and misunderstood misfits who find other creative square pegs to ease their loneliness.

 

Tony, Shelly, and the Magic Light plays the Egyptian on Fri, May 10, at 4:15pm, and at SIFF Downtown on Sun, May 19, at 1pm. Click here for more information. Images from Fantasia 2023 (Juliet Mills, Richard Joseph Paul, and Leon Russum), YouTube (Tony and Shelly), and Nutprodukcia (Miss Tubby and Ernestine, Sylvia, Tony's mother, and the caretaker). 

Thursday, May 2, 2024

SIFF 2024 Dispatch #1: Dawn Porter Profiles an R&B Dynamo in Luther: Never Too Much

LUTHER: NEVER TOO MUCH 
(Dawn Porter, USA, 101 minutes) 

Luther Vandross was a quadruple threat: singer, songwriter, producer, and arranger. He was also a man who never found the love he spent his life singing about, territory director Dawn Porter (John Lewis: Good Trouble, The Lady Bird Diaries) handles with delicacy and restraint. 

She begins her profile in black and white as Vandross rehearses for an engagement at London's Royal Albert Hall. Everyone, including the star, is dressed casually, but they're giving it their all. She then segues to color footage of the 1994 show with everyone dressed to the sequin-bedecked nines in front of a crowd losing their shit to his version of Philly duo McFadden & Whitehead's 1979 disco hit "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now."

She then backtracks to TV interviews in which Vandross talks about his Bronx childhood. His family was hardly rich, but he felt he had everything he needed, and he had something to aspire to: Motown. Not so much the label itself, but the Black excellence groups like the Supremes represented: talent, polish, popularity. He felt the same way about Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin. His interest in male singers appears to have been minimal. 

Since Vandross passed away in 2005, Porter turns to friends and associates for recollections about the artist, like Carlos Alomar and Chic associate Fonzi Thornton who played in his first group, the Shades of Jade. "He was a boss from the beginning," Thornton remembers, sharing a story about how Vandross appealed to his cash-strapped mother to buy her son green patent leather shoes in order to live up to their unusual moniker. What mother could resist such a polite and persuasive young man? Certainly not his. And not Alomar's Puerto Rican mother either--even though she didn't speak any English. 

En route to solo success, Vandross segued to the vocal group Listen My Brother, which often performed at the Apollo Theater (Roger Ross Williams's Apollo, SIFF '19, is an excellent primer on the legendary venue). The group included his best friends Thornton, Alomar, and Robyn Clark, who also appears in the documentary. Vandross, as was often the case, was in the right place at the right time, since Jim Henson heard about the Black empowerment-oriented group and hired them for a new show set in a Harlem-inspired neighborhood: PBS's groundbreaking Sesame Street

To Alomar, Vandross had a voice made for success, but believes that his dark complexion and solid build went against the qualities prized in Black singers of the late-1960s. Beyond his talent, he was a bright young man, and he went off to college at Western Michigan University while his friends kept singing, but it wasn't for him, and he dropped out after the first year.

From there, he would again end up in the right place at the right time: Philadelphia during the days of the fabled Philly Sound. 

When David Bowie decided to make a decisive break from London glam, he headed to Philadelphia for 1975's Young Americans, his self-described "plastic soul" album. Exclaimed Bowie, "I love this guy!," remembers backup singer Ava Cherry. Bowie, who appears in archival footage, was at the height of his androgyny with sculpted hair, bleached brows, and eyeliner. That same year, he claimed he was bisexual. Twenty years later, he would describe himself as a "closet heterosexual." Vandross, by comparison, looked like the straight one. 

All of this would have been good enough for any young singer, but Vandross also revealed talents for songwriting and arranging, and he would receive credit for both on the album--it says a lot about Bowie that he shared writing credit with him on "Fascination." Not all superstars are as generous.  

With an introduction from Bowie, Vandross moved on to Bette Midler. Once again, he was part of a gay-coded milieu (Midler started out singing in bathhouses). Porter's speakers don't mention any of this, but you can see her building up to it. Not least because there's no mention of his relationships; just his Platonic friendships with both men and women. 

If he wasn't yet a star in his own right, Vandross became an in-demand session singer on national commercial jingles and with top-selling soul, funk, and disco acts, like Sister Sledge, Chic, and Roberta Flack. As Nile Rodgers points out, Vandross appears on every song of Chic's first two records, including 1978's immortal "Le Freak." Just as Bowie tapped Vandross's varied skills, Flack did the same. As much as she valued his contributions to her stage show, she believed he should have a spotlight of his own, and actively pushed him in that direction. 

With that boost, Vandross cut "Never Too Much," the 1981 single and title track that finally made him a foreground star. Platinum-selling albums, talk show appearances--14 with Oprah, an ardent admirer--and production work for Warwick and Franklin, the still-vital icons of his youth, would follow. This is also around the time he started wearing his signature eyeliner, a detail that goes unmentioned, even as it added to his physical allure.  

Unlike some peers, he also had a sense of humor. When Eddie Murphy marveled in his 1987 stand-up special Raw that "this Kentucky Fried Chicken-eating motherfucker" could make the ladies swoon, Vandross brought out a giant KFC bucket for a show at which he knew Murphy was in attendance and even sang a few lines of the chicken-slinger's latest jingle. 

Nonetheless, his weight fluctuated throughout his life. Vandross explained to one talk show host, "I was an emotional eater." As the title of the documentary attests, he was an all or nothing kind of guy; he was either eating or dieting. There was no healthy middle ground. When things weren't going well, he turned to food to cope, but if he kept some aspects of his life private, he was open about his struggles with his weight. 

He was also open about his desire to cross over to a wider audience, but felt that his label was holding him back. Friend and cowriter Richard Marx backs him up, claiming that Epic spent more money promoting white artists. 

It may seem like ego--the desire to be embraced by all listeners--but I believe it was also about longevity, because if Vandross was riding high in the 1980s, by the late-1990s, his record sales were slumping while hip-hop was dominating the airwaves. It's worth noting that Sony produced this documentary, and Jon Platt, CEO/Chairman of Sony Music Publishing, is among the speakers, which may be why Porter doesn't mention that Vandross sued to be released from his Epic contract. As his attorney Don Engel told The Los Angeles Times in 1992, "He feels that Sony has pigeonholed him and has not done all it could to expand his audience." 

Fortunately, his hit-making days were reignited when he signed to Clive Davis's J Records, though the documentary omits mention of the album, I Know, Virgin released after he fulfilled his Epic contract.

Porter only turns to Vandross's personal life after establishing the contours of his career. For Jamie Foxx, who co-produced the film, his love songs were a way to win ladies' hearts, but what about Vandross's heart? 

He would tell friends that he hadn't found love, but that he hadn't given up hope. No one--except Patti LaBelle in a talk show appearance that upset his friends--says he was gay. The consensus was that he would rather be alone than to act on such feelings. It was the one aspect of his life he kept to himself such that he never even denied the claim. He would simply refuse to dignify such speculation with a response--other than to sue British magazine Blues and Soul when it falsely claimed that his 1985 weight loss was due to AIDS. 

Though that sort of secrecy and protectiveness tends to suggest that a public figure is gay, that isn't always the case. Like Vandross, Tim Curry, who turned 78 this year, never married, had kids, or ever said whether he is gay or straight. Though he emerged from a subculture--London's theatrical scene in the early-1970s--when androgyny and/or the impression of bisexuality was practically de rigueur, he has always kept his private life private. From my research, while working on a paper about Curry, I came to the conclusion that he's probably straight, but I couldn't say for sure, not least because he didn't drop clues the way, say, Freddie Mercury did. What I can say is that neither man ever found the love of his life. Curry claims that he was in love once, but it didn't last. In the documentary, Vandross says he fell in love a few times, but that his affection was never returned.  

I'm not certain when Vandross was diagnosed with diabetes, but it represented an increasing threat. If he was open about his weight in the 1980s, by the 1990s, he was tired of talking about it, even as reporters  continued to ask. It wasn't just about vanity; his life was on the line. To Marx, the obsession with his weight obscured his artistry. Starting in 2003, Vandross would experience some of his biggest professional successes--and some of his worst health setbacks. He was only 54 when he died.

Though I had hoped to learn more about his personal life from Never Too Much, Dawn Porter honors his artistry from start to finish. This is also a fully authorized biography, but even if it wasn't, she may still have chosen to respect Vandross's privacy. Nowadays, the choice not to disclose one's sexual orientation isn't as respected or accepted as it once was, and some music fans view figures like Vandross as relics. They're entitled to their opinion, and I love a happy coming-out story as much as anyone, but in the end, a public figure doesn't owe us any detail whatsoever about their private life, not even a man whose voice, songs, productions, and performances set millions of mostly-female hearts aflame. 

If he never found the kind of romantic "forever, for always" love he sang about with such passion, it's clear that Luther Vandross had friends he loved dearly who loved him with equal ardor. Not everyone can be so lucky. 


Luther: Never Too Much plays the Egyptian on Fri, May 10, at 6:30pm and Pacific Place on Sun, May 19, at 1:30pm. Dawn Porter will be at the May 10 screening. For more information, click here. Images: Indiewire via Sundance Institute and Sony Music Entertainment, RCA via Smooth Radio (Vandross and David Bowie), Ebet Roberts / Getty Images (Roberta Flack and Vandross backstage at Madison Square Garden on Sept 11, 1982), Lisa Fischer's Facebook (Vandross with KFC bucket), Ron Galella/WireImage via TV One (Vandross and Patti LaBelle), and Billboard (Vandross and Richard Marx).  

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Stranger Flashback: Air, Scorsese, and Méliès

This is a revived version of a 2011 Line Out post (these posts were purged from the internet some time after The Stranger pulled the plug on their music blog).

FILM/TV Nov 28, 2011 at 9:12 am

Air, Scorsese, Méliès, and the Moon

Since I just caught Martin Scorsese's Hugo, which incorporates magician-turned-director Georges Méliès (wonderfully played by Ben Kingsley), news about Air's upcoming record arrived at the perfect time. It's titled Le Voyage dans la Lune after Méliès' most famous film, i.e. A Trip to the Moon. The label sent the press release the day after the movie opened.

In Hugo, Scorsese doesn't just recreate portions of Le Voyage--in 3D, no less--but he also recreates the making of this 1902 landmark. 

For a motion picture adapted from a young adult novel (Brian Selznick's 2007 The Invention of Hugo Cabret) and intended for family viewing, Hugo is a more richly rewarding enterprise than I would have expected. If Air's album is even half as good, it should be worth the wait.

While it's been awhile since I've picked up an Air recording, I remain fond of their haunting score for Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, another period adaptation, so I have a good feeling about Le Voyage dans la Lune.

I should also mention that I'm a big fan of musician/graphic artist/filmmaker Mike Mills (Butter 08, Thumbsucker, Beginners), Air's go-to director. You can sample his work on YouTube or, better yet, in the 10th anniversary edition of Moon Safari, which includes the key videos and a documentary.

Full press release, Hugo trailer, and Méliès' film below. H/t: Steven Fried


Le Voyage dans la Lune is a classic black & white silent film by revered French director Georges Méliès. Released in 1902, this legendary 16-minute film is widely considered one of the most important works in film history, and the very first to use science fiction as its theme, incorporating special effects that were very state-of-the-art at the turn of the 19th century. It was loosely based on two popular novels of the time: Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon and H. G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon.

A hand-colored print, the only one known to survive, was rediscovered in 1993 by the Filmoteca de Catalunya. It was in a state of almost total decomposition, and many years of painstaking, manual restoration took place until 2010, when digital technology finally came to the rescue. Following another year at the Technicolor Lab of Los Angeles, it was finally ready to share with the world. Eager to put a contemporary spin on this classic silent film, the producers decided to approach AIR's Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel, to compose an original modern soundtrack, an enormous honor for French musicians, considering the film's place in the canon of French cinema.

Spurred on by their work on this short movie, AIR decided to develop the project into a full album inspired by the film. Expanding the original musical themes beyond cinematic instrumentals, the album also features the vocal talents and lyrics of Au Revoir Simone and Victoria Legrand (Beach House). The band's lunar fascinations have been evident since the beginning of their career with the release of the seminal 1998 classic Moon Safari. Now in 2012 Nicolas and J.B. have returned to explore the further regions of their very unique musical "space."

A special 3-minute extract of the film will be made available FREE for one week only on iTunes on December 6th. And on that same date, the AIR album pre-order will start including a STRICTLY LIMITED EDITION digital box set featuring the album and the newly colorized, restored film featuring AIR's original score.

Track listing: 1. Astronomic Club, 2. Seven Stars (with Victoria Legrand), 3. Retour sur Terre, 4. Parade, 5. Moon Fever, 6. Sonic Armada, 7. Who Am I Now? (with Au Revoir Simone), 8. Décollage, 9. Cosmic Trip, 10. Homme Lune, 11. Lava.

Virgin releases Le Voyage dans la Lune on 2/7/12 in the US and Canada.

Photo credit: A Trip to the Moon (1902) by Georges Méliès - original color version restored - 2011 © Lobster Films - Groupama Gan Foundation - Technicolor Foundation.